There was a time when Donald Trump’s rallies generated headlines—when he shouted things that really surprised us. Who can forget the uproar he caused in 2017 when he went after Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who knelt during the national anthem, or earlier that year when he branded Barack Obama “the founder of ISIS”?
Trump’s speech in Arizona on Saturday night, his first rally in months and his much-anticipated opportunity to reply to the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, was neither stunning nor remarkable.
It didn’t even make the first page of The Washington Post on Sunday morning. The New York Times merely used Trump’s address as a springboard for a larger article with the headline: “Trump Rally Underscores G.O.P. Tension Over How to Win in 2022.”
Trump rallies sparked frenzied attention and fueled numerous news cycles a few years back. However, The Times’ report isn’t even about the event, and their mention of it is mostly incidental.
To maintain readers’ interest, The Times included a cast of supporting characters, such as Kari Lake, a Trump-backed candidate for governor of Arizona who used to be a local news anchor. The portrait of her in The Times shows her wearing a cloak, which I believe we can all agree is mysterious. It’s no surprise they used her.
Thanks baby! pic.twitter.com/iBDAFAAHza
— Finnegan (@alanbogner) January 17, 2022
Showrunners of TV sitcoms frequently respond to dwindling ratings by adding a “Cousin Oliver”—typically, an adorable youngster whose smart-alecky wit is designed to spice up a weary setting. Sometimes it works, and other times it’s proof that a program has simply “jumped the shark.” Trump, on the other hand, has never been an ensemble cast sort of personality. He’s the whole show, and the supporting cast is as interchangeable and transitory as Spinal Tap’s bursting drummers.
The event in Arizona may have served as an unofficial launch to his 2024 candidacy. But this time, Trump will have to fight harder to get through—and not only because the media will be less willing to grant him free air time.
Call it the Andrew Dice Clay conundrum: if your whole act is built on shock value, your audience will get inured, and your lack of depth will become painfully obvious.
Trump made claims in Arizona on Saturday night that could have gotten some attention in the past (on Sunday morning, at least). But they’re not receiving much attention. According to coverage of the event, Trump “delivered a scorching reaction to Democrats” and “started his address by falsely claiming ‘evidence’ that the 2020 election was ‘rigged.’ The fact that this “blistering response” was not considered worthy of being the site’s headline article is even more striking. What might have elicited fury and wagging tongues a few years ago today inspires a collective yawn.
The point with changing the Overton Window is this: At the social level, the process of adjusting norms and assumptions is very important. When news consumers get accustomed to a former president falsely alleging an election was stolen, it’s a dangerous sign. It also undermines one of Trump’s most valuable assets: his capacity to astound and astonish. His act is worn out, which may sometimes result in a professional death sentence.
To be sure, Trump benefits from the (false) perception that he has been mistreated. But it’s difficult to understand how a 75-year-old guy with such a backwards outlook can continue in the vanguard. On Saturday night, Trump was not just trapped in 2020, but also in the twentieth century. There were several communist allusions (more than usual), including a comparison of the Jan. 6 Commission’s witness questioning to Stalinist show trials.
You might forgive Trump for such fantastical assaults on Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats, given how ineffective his criticism of Joe Biden is. Trump isn’t adept at pursuing a substantial policy attack, and despite Biden’s poor popularity numbers, it’s difficult to get too excited about him (the best Trump could do was mock him for seeming dazed and confused). All of this is to suggest that the new stuff did not go down well on Saturday night.
“Make America Great Again… Again,” was the rallying cry. Even Trump’s attire hinted to a possible sequel. He wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat that partly masked his eyes for the most of the night, although it wasn’t the famous one from the 2016 presidential race. He was trying to have it both ways by performing some of his “biggest hits” as well as some new stuff. Is it true that lightning never strikes twice? There are hundreds of Ghostbusters II disasters for every Godfather II triumph.
We’d be idiots to dismiss Trump totally. He is one of the few people in American folklore who is capable of a third act. But he needs fresh content quickly, because if his Arizona rally indicates anything, it’s that the old routine no longer works.